I hear you, Indians fan. I’m with you. I feel you. We are simpatico.
You look at your Tribe team, entering 2011 with a bare-bones payroll and seemingly little hope of contending, and you know that the game’s grand economic inequities have caught up with Cleveland once again. All the big names developed in the Indians’ system had to be shipped elsewhere because they were due to cash in through free agency.
It’s a story we’ve discussed in this space once or twice.
You also look at the broader scope of the game and note that the more teams spend, the better their odds to contend. This is indisputable.
So, yeah, baseball’s unfair. It’s been unfair as long as I can remember. If MLB operated like the NFL, the Indians might have maneuvered a way to keep their stars and build a playoff dynasty. Instead, the Indians lost those guys and, on top of that, they didn’t draft well. So now they find themselves among the Royals and Pirates of the world, trying to claw their way back to coherence on a limited budget.
It’s harder to claw in baseball than it is in the NFL. This is indisputable also. The player development process is painfully slow, and free agency is expensive and inefficient.
I get all that. To spend five years covering the Indians and not get that would make me the Hector Luna of beat guys.
But that wasn’t the point of the piece.
My point (apparently, not-so-well-articulated) is that, for all its economic faults, baseball has seen a remarkable amount of unpredictability in terms of playoff participants from year to year. Though you would think otherwise when you listen to talking heads or the casual fan, payroll alone doesn’t dictate the postseason lineup (three of last year’s eight postseason clubs ranked in the bottom 12 in Opening Day payroll, and only two of the top nine payrolls made it). And contrary to popular perception, baseball’s unpredictability in this regard rivals what we see in the NFL.
Is it easier or more efficient to build and sustain a great team — even in a small market — in the NFL? You better believe it (although you wouldn’t know it, watching the Browns operate). NFL teams can draft talent that directly impacts the team the following season, and the NFL has a salary cap and non-guaranteed contracts that ensure more bang for the buck and less chance of an albatross like Travis Hafner hanging around.
But that doesn’t mean the NFL is infinitely less predictable than MLB, when it comes to a preseason prognostication on who might participate in the playoffs and, therefore, get a shot at the title. The stats in the column back that up.
Baseball is actually trending toward more unpredictability. Over the last four years, 24 NFL teams (50 percent of the available spots) have reached the playoffs in consecutive seasons, and only 12 (37.5 percent) have done so in MLB. My suspicion (and I readily admit I could be wrong) is that, as MLB gets younger in the wake of the steroid era, we could see more and more instances of teams in the lower half of the payroll totem pole — teams like the Reds, Rangers and Rays in 2010 — make it to October. For the good of the game, I hope I’m right.
I’m not arguing that MLB has more economic parity. It’s painfully clear such a thing is nonexistent in baseball. I’m arguing that those who dismiss baseball as a sport in which only the big spenders survive aren’t paying attention. The stats demonstrate that, in both sports, a broad range of teams contribute to the playoff pool (a pool that is significantly wider in the NFL, which allows 12 teams in). In baseball, if you draft and develop well, you can put together a club that outplays its payroll and legitimately contends. But if you don’t, the penalties are harsher than they are in any other major professional sport.
That’s where the frustration sets in. And Tribe fans know that frustration as well as anybody.